Not even death could stop Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot.” At its world premiere in 1926, conductor Arturo Toscanini abruptly ended the opera to address the audience.
“Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died,” Toscanini said, according to one account. Another holds that he said the more poetic, “Here death triumphed over art.”
Whichever version is correct, Toscanini stopped at the last note Puccini wrote. Ever since, “Turandot” has been performed using a version completed by composer Franco Alfano based on Puccini’s notes.
Taking place in ancient Beijing, the opera tells the tale of Turandot, a princess who will marry any male royal who can pass a test of three riddles. The winner gets her hand in marriage; losers will be decapitated. Prince Calaf is instantly turned on by Turandot’s sadistic leanings, and decides to take on the challenge.
Asked to sum up the show, Kelly Cae Hogan, who plays Turandot in the Virginia Opera production, has a quick explanation: “Wicked ice princess is trying to avoid marriage, and the most expedient way of avoiding marriage is murdering all applicants.”
Derek Taylor, who portrays Calaf, has a less comical summary.
“The story is an adult fable,” he says. “My Calaf is completely struck by Turandot. I believe he is an impetuous person, … a young person. That would explain his one-sidedness, his passion for Turandot, the fact that he would sacrifice everything to answer these riddles to marry her.”
Known for his fastidiousness, Puccini spent the last four years of his life on “Turandot,” drawing from a lifetime of composing such works as “La Boheme,” “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly.” But “Turandot” is considered his most musically adventurous, incorporating Chinese folk melodies and including gongs, glockenspiels and xylophones in the orchestration.
“Puccini’s melodies and the scope of it is so infectious, so grand, that it’s the perfect first opera,” Taylor says, citing its scope, range of voices, children’s chorus, massive orchestra and huge choral numbers. “It’s a spectacle.”
Where other productions have flooded the stage with hundreds of dancers, jugglers and firebreathers — including a 1998 staging at Beijing’s Forbidden City, which used hundreds of soldiers as extras — director Lillian Groag goes the opposite direction.
“It [can be] an enormous spectacle show, and what happens inevitably is the story gets buried with so much bling,” Groag says. Audiences here will see “a completely bare stage, very simple, elegant symbols of where people are at any one time — but they will get the story.”
She adds that her show will be both sexy and spooky, with ghostly appearances throughout the opera. Taylor and Hogan are fans of this stripped-down approach.
“It’s not the over-the-top, bells-and-whistles, superficial approach to the story,” Hogan says. “It’s a more directly emotional connection to the story and what happens to the characters.”
Tales similar to “Turandot” have existed in many cultures, Groag says, and speak to the universality of the human condition: “It’s very beautiful, and very romantic, and very poetic, and very real, and very troubling.” SCorrection: Kelly Cae Hogan's last name was mispelled in the original text. Style regrets the error.
Virginia Opera’s “Turandot” plays March 31 and April 2 at the Dominion Arts Center, 600 E. Grace Street. For information, visit vaopera.org or call 866-673-7282.